Poking the Bear

Ben Carson may have figured out how to beat Donald Trump at his own game.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks during a news conference before a campaign rally on Sept. 9, 2015, in Anaheim, California.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

This week saw the start of the fight that political death-match junkies have been awaiting much of the summer: Donald Trump and Ben Carson, Nos. 1 and 2 in most Republican primary polls, duking it out in the political-entertainment octagon for the title of Top Outsider Candidate.

In typical GOP presidential election cycles, such a designation is worth little beyond a convention speaking slot. Whoever manages to capture the outsider vote—Pat Robertson, Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan—may go on to win a state or two, but otherwise serves as a kitschy roadside tourist trap en route to the establishment candidate’s coronation. Maybe it will still play out that way, but the summer of Trump has lasted long enough for the political press to stop presuming that the old rules will eventually assert themselves.

Consider what Trump and Carson have amassed under their respective outsider banners by mid-September. Thursday’s CNN/ORC national poll finds Trump and Carson at 32 and 19 percent, respectively, giving the two novice politicians a majority between them. Trump and Carson also top the field in terms of voters’ second choices. Maybe all that support will transfer elsewhere as voting time nears, per the laws of presidential primary physics. Or maybe we now officially live in a country that’s rejected physics, once and for all, as a sacrilegious tool of the elites.

Trump and Carson charted their paths to the top in starkly different ways. Trump goes on television several times per day and says that he is the greatest, most successful human being in history, better than Jesus Christ—a third-rate builder who’d be clueless trying to play the Manhattan permit game. He feasts off celebrity, trash talk, and the round-the-clock media attention that comes with both. He lures one rival after another into a competition of alpha male bona fides, a competition he will always win. It is all swagger, a trait that lends itself well to his platform of jingoistic nativism.

Carson, on the other end of the spectrum, does not insult other candidates. He does not raise his voice. He does not appear on television too often, and when he does, he looks ready for a nap. But as someone who’s had a side career in inspirational speaking for decades, he knows how to connect with Republican audiences with a combination of humor and biblical messaging you might find in a church sermon. The thread that connects these two unlikely outsiders sitting atop the Republican field is a feeling of total self-confidence, expressed through polar opposite styles.

Naturally, Trump’s been looking to pound this guy—to emasculate him the same way he’s done to Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Lindsey Graham, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, and whoever else has leapt onto his radar. (We’ll see if he even bothers with the ever-so-desperate Bobby Jindal.) Trump has claimed, humorously, that he never punches—he simply counter-punches. In an interview last Friday, he couldn’t contain his desire to counter-punch Carson. After conceding that Carson is a “nice guy,” Trump added, “I’m hoping for Ben to really hit me at some point because I love to counter-punch.”

At an event in Anaheim, California, on Wednesday night, Carson gave Trump all he needed. As the Washington Post reported, Carson was asked to name a difference between him and Trump. “The biggest thing is that I realize where my success has come from,” he said, “and I don’t any way deny my faith in God.”

Finally, an opportunity for Trump to let loose all of the ace Ben Carson material he’s been workshopping. In a CNN appearance Thursday morning, Trump described Carson, a world-renowned neurosurgeon, as “perhaps an OK doctor” who, “if you look at his past, which I’ve done … was not a big man of faith.” By contrast, Trump described himself as “a believer, big league, in God.” He continued: “All of a sudden [Carson]’s becoming this man of faith and he was heavy into the world of abortion,” an accusation that’s not entirely fabricated. Lastly, Trump said that Carson makes the infamously “low-energy” Bush “look like the Energizer Bunny.”

This is usually the part where the subject of Trump’s taunts responds with a tepid So’s yer old man jab before wishing he had never gotten involved at all. (Ask Graham, if you can track down his new cellphone number.) When reached by a Washington Post reporter Thursday morning, though, Carson did something truly spectacular: He apologized to Trump for any misunderstanding. “I would like to say to him that the intention was not to talk to him but about what motivates me,” he told the Post. “If he took that as a personal attack on him, I apologize, it was certainly not the intent.”

Carson added that he does not want to get into a “gladiator fight with Trump.” That’s smart. He, like everyone else who’s tried, would lose such a bout.

What Carson has that the other candidates don’t is an alternative to engaging Trump on Trump’s terms. A candidate like Graham, or Perry, or Jindal—or even Bush at this point—needs to try anything to get a boost. The most obvious way to do that is to poke a stick at the figure through whom all media coverage runs, even if it’s going to get him poked back. Carson needs no such jolt. He’s been doing perfectly well for himself running a campaign that’s an extension of his own popular persona: laconic, polite, and media-cautious. Jabbing the monster, then backing off a step and saying, “Who, me?” works for him in a way that would signal defeat for anyone else.

If the back-and-forth continues like this, Trump is not going to know what to do next. He runs a serious risk of driving away outsider-curious voters if he continues insulting Carson, the most favorably viewed candidate in the race. It would also be in Trump’s interest to be nice to the man who sits beneath him in the polls and hope for him to collapse on his own, much as the other 15 candidates are hoping happens to both Trump and Carson. It’s not in Trump’s nature to be nice. Perhaps he could take some cues from Carson.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.